Saudi Arabia's closest Sunni allies have followed its lead and severed or downgraded their relations with Iran, as the repercussions continued over the execution of a leading Shia cleric by the Saudi authorities, which has provoked international condemnation. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, called the dramatic rupture between Riyadh and Tehran “deeply worrying", The Telegraph reports.
Bahrain and Sudan cut their ties with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations in a bitter row that has highlighted escalating Sunni-Shia tensions and cast a long shadow over efforts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen.
The swift succession of punitive diplomatic moves followed attacks by Iranian crowds on the Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashhad in protest at the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday. Three other Saudi Shias were executed, as were 43 Sunnis convicted of terrorism. It was the biggest mass execution in the conservative kingdom since 1980.
Saudi Arabia defended its judicial process late on Monday night, saying that 47 people executed at the weekend had been granted “fair and just trials without any consideration to their intellectual, racial, or sectarian affiliation". The Saudi UN mission expressed “deep regret" that Ban had raised concerns about the nature of the charges and fairness of the trials of those executed.
Iran hailed Nimr as a martyr and warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge". But the attacks on Saudi missions were also condemned inside Iran as an own goal that had diverted attention from the executions.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, blamed the row on Iran's “aggressive policies" and said Riyadh would halt air traffic and commercial relations with Iran. He said Iranians would, however, still be able to visit the kingdom for pilgrimages to Mecca.
The UN secretary general spoke to both Jubeir and Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and urged them “to avoid any actions that could further exacerbate the situation between two countries and in the region as a whole".
Bahrain, which blames Iran for fomenting subversion and terrorism among the island state's restive Shia majority, attacked Tehran for its “blatant and dangerous interference" in Gulf affairs. Sudan followed suit shortly afterwards, amid speculation that other north African states might do the same.
The UAE downgraded its diplomatic representation to Iran, replacing its ambassador with a chargé d'affaires. The relatively modest step reflects the close trade ties between the two countries despite longstanding political tensions.
Late on Sunday, a man was shot dead in Saudi Arabia's Eastern province, while two Sunni mosques in Iraq's Shia-majority Hilla province were bombed in the fallout.
Analysts and diplomats predicted that the worst immediate victim of the tension would be peace talks on Syria, which were galvanised in late 2015 by the first ever agreement of Iran and Saudi Arabia to sit at the same table – despite respectively backing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the rebels fighting to overthrow him.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, is to visit both countries this week to gauge the impact of the crisis on efforts to convene negotiations later this month. De Mistura hopes “the adverse consequences of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran do not affect the peace process with the Syrians", a UN spokesman said.
“This leaves the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen still harder to resolve, and undoes some of the progress made over recent weeks to bring Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their proxies into direct discussions," said the New York-based Soufan Group. “It is difficult to see that Saudi Arabia did not know that its decision to execute Nimr would not cause an uproar in the region and wouldn't put additional strains on its already tense relations with Iran," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council.
“The inexcusable torching of the Saudi embassy in Iran in turn provided Riyadh with the perfect pretext to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran and by that significantly undermine US-led regional diplomacy on both Syria and Yemen."
She said that mourners from around the gulf had gathered at the family home but that the government had still not given the family the body back.
“We demanded to get the body but there has not been any response so far – it's as if we had not asked at all."
The Saudis appeared to be in defiant mood despite widespread censure of the executions. “If there was any doubt that Iran deliberately refrained from stopping protesters from attacking Saudi Arabia's diplomatic buildings after the consulate in Mashhad was ransacked, that doubt disappeared when the embassy in Tehran was torched and looted hours later," said Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Saudi analyst.
“Despite Iran's rich history of sowing instability in the region and supporting proxy militias in efforts to destabilise Arab countries, Saudi Arabia refrained from severing diplomatic ties in hopes to find common ground and pressure Iran to cease its destructive activities. The attacks on the Saudi consulate and embassy in Iran were the final straw."
Attacks on foreign embassies have often taken place in Iran: these include the 2011 storming of the British embassy and the infamous US hostage crisis after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The incidents have brought embarrassment for the moderate administration of the president, Hassan Rouhani, and undermined his diplomatic apparatus. Internal critics say the unrest has shifted attention away from the executions in Saudi Arabia.
But the official tone was still defiant. Iran's first vice-president, Eshagh Jahangiri, used strong language to denounce Saudi officials over the executions. “I advise the Saudi leaders to stop these subversive, hasty, illogical, emotional acts that are marked by mismanagement," he was quoted as saying.
“Just look what chaos you have created in the region over the past couple of years," he said. “What came of your move to create terrorist groups other than plunging the region into disarray and the plundering of the properties of the people of Syria and Iraq and elsewhere?"
The head of Iran's judicial system, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli-Larijani, accused Saudis of wreaking havoc. “The Muslim world today is witnessing numerous crimes [committed] by Saudis in different regions and in all [instances of] belligerency happening in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, Saudis' fingerprints and their support for terrorists are seen," he said, according to Iranian state network Press TV.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, said: “It seems that Saudi Arabia considers not only its interest, [but also] its survival in the continuation of tensions and conflicts and is trying to settle its domestic problems through blame games.
“Iran pursues a clear and transparent policy with regard to the expansion of interaction and cooperation with all neighbours and world countries and enjoys excellent relations with many regional governments, especially Arabic governments."
Source/picture: The Guardian